Broadcasting the perfect set for former volleyball players

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Maria Taylor on the ESPN Gameday set last September at Notre Dame and as a player at Georgia/Gameday phot by Scott Clarke, ESPN Images)

It seems like Maria Taylor is everywhere these days. 

When Barack Obama attended the North Carolina-Duke men’s basketball game in February, the ESPN analyst was there. 

She was on hand when Clemson snatched the college football championship away from Alabama.

And if you happen to be flipping through the channels on a Wednesday night, you’ll also catch her on Lebron James’ new competition series “Million Dollar Mile.” 

She does the ESPN morning studio show and College GameDay, and, oh yeah, the 31-year-old former University of Georgia basketball and volleyball star was all over March Madness coverage, from being the host for the women’s NCAA Tournament selection show to the Final Four. 

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And while Taylor might be the most high-profile and busiest former college volleyball player working in sports broadcasting today, she’s certainly not the only one. 

There’s the original college volleyball star-turned-broadcaster, Chris Marlowe, who led San Diego State to a national championship in 1973 before joining the USA national team and winning a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics. He’s still NBC’s go-to for indoor and beach volleyball broadcasts, and does play-by-play for the Denver Nuggets.

Former University of Louisville setter Katie George, the 2015 Miss Kentucky USA, joined the Milwaukee Bucks organization as a sideline reporter this fall after working in local news in Louisville for two years after her standout college career.

Turn on a college volleyball or beach volleyball match and you’re likely to hear the voices of former players Kevin Barnett, Anne Marie Anderson, Camryn Irwin, Holly McPeak, Nicole Branagh, Karch Kiraly, and Dain Blanton, just to name a few. Irwin and Barnett are also on the cusp of kicking off their second season hosting Amazon Prime’s coverage of the AVP beach volleyball tour.

There are others on different levels and genres, including Sara Sidner, the former Florida player now an international correspondent for CNN. The Longhorn Network volleyball broadcasting team, for example, includes former USA great Paul Sunderland — who calls international events and the Olympics for NBC — and Nell Fortner, best known for being a former college and USA Olympic basketball coach, but who won a national volleyball championship at Texas.

ESPN volleyball analysts include former players Jenny Hazelwood (Mississippi State), Lizzy Stemke (Wisconsin), Bailey Webster (Texas) and Missy Whittemore (Florida). And former Pacific standout Heather (Schoeny) Cox has worked sports of all kinds at the highest levels for NBC.

Anne Marie Anderson had a tough time keeping a straight face when working a basketball game with Bill Walton

Success on the court

Before they called their first match or wrote their first story, each of the former college volleyball players VolleyballMag.com interviewed for this article was really good at volleyball. 

Anderson led her Hofstra team to the East Coast Conference title in 1988, earning the title of co-MVP, and her name (well, her maiden name, Anne Marie Jeffords) appears multiple times in the program record books, ranking in the top 10 for matches played, total blocks, and solo blocks.

Taylor, a product of Alpharetta, Ga., earned All-SEC honors in each of her four seasons at Georgia and ranks fourth all-time in career kills and points.

George claimed the starting setter spot just four games into her freshman season at Louisville and never relinquished it. She served as team captain her last two seasons, played for the U.S. Collegiate National Team (as a libero), and as a senior was named AVCA honorable mention All-American and ACC Player and Setter of the Year. 

Irwin transferred to Washington State from Oregon before her sophomore season and started at the setter position for all three of her years in Pullman, accumulating more than 1,000 assists each year. She then went on to play professionally in Austria and Sweden. 

Barnett, who is from Illinois and first played volleyball at a junior college, also made it to the professional ranks after finishing at Pepperdine, where he earned second-team All-American honors. He then landed a spot on the national team and competed in two Olympics.

Katie George as a setter for Louisville/Louisville photo

When they graduated from college, Taylor and George both faced a tough choice of signing a volleyball contract overseas or jumping right into the broadcasting world. 

“My name had gotten some hype and was big in Louisville just from what we had done from a volleyball standpoint,” George said. “I had just been to Miss USA and I thought, I need to strike while the iron’s hot and take this job while my name is still relevant and people know who I am,.

“If I go overseas for two to three years and come back, people might not remember me and I might not have that kind of name recognition.”

Taylor also chose to end her volleyball career after college, but she remembers struggling to figure out her new identity while working her first broadcasting job as a reporter for GeorgiaDogs.com.

“You’re defined by who you are as a volleyball player and the way that you perform on the court, and it’s hard to know who you are without it,” she said.

Anne Marie Anderson and Holly McPeak getting ready to go on the air for an ESPN beach broadcast

The path to the broadcast booth

“I can remember in seventh grade knowing that I wanted to be a journalist,” said Anderson, who worked for ESPN for 23 years, first as a producer and then as on-air talent before moving to mostly doing play-by-play (for volleyball, basketball, soccer, and softball) on Pac-12 Network. “I was super clear about it.”

But not everyone had such a confident vision of their broadcast career. 

Taylor, for one, flip-flopped from wanting to be a doctor to majoring in business and then finding broadcasting after attending a journalism class with friend and teammate Anjelica Partridge. 

“(Anjelica) always wanted to be a newscaster. She wanted to move back to Chattanooga and be the lead anchor on their affiliate broadcasts, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Taylor said. “I went to a class with her, like an intro to journalism class, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, I could see myself doing this.’”

Injuries forced Barnett and Irwin to seek a career outside of professional athletics.

Kevin Barnett serves during the 2001 World League/Sports Illustrated photo

Barnett retired in 2006, when a series of knee injuries got to be too much. For a few months after leaving the sport, he worked in real estate in Colorado, but both he and his wife wanted to move back to California.

“While I had been working in volleyball and in real estate, my wife had stayed at home with the boys who were 2 and 4 at the time, and eventually we came to realize that I didn’t have any marketable skills necessarily to a company out here in California,” Barnett said. “So we flipped roles when we moved here.”

That choice to stay home gave Barnett the opportunity to say yes when USA Volleyball came calling to see if he would be interested in covering the 2007 World League tournament. The World League gig led to working as an analyst for the 2007 World Cup on NBC and then the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. 

When he retired, Barnett never imagined he’d go to another Olympics. 

“I had consciously in ’04 kind of taken a look around like, ‘Better enjoy it because you’re not coming back,’ ” Barnett said. But now, he’s been at every Summer Olympics since 2000. The first two as a player and the next three as a broadcaster.

Irwin suffered a career-ending back injury early in her second professional season.

When she returned home, Irwin, who had worked in front of and behind the camera for Washington State athletics all through college and between her two seasons overseas, contacted the Pac-12 Network. 

“Pac-12 Network took a chance on me, which I am so eternally grateful for. They have become my family,” Irwin said. “They have always been my family, because I dreamt of playing Pac-12 volleyball since I was 5 and so then to work for the network and the conference that I idolized my entire life was just the greatest opportunity.”

Camryn Irwin doing an AVP interview last summer with Phil Dalhausser as Nick Lucena looks on

Connections and credibility 

No matter how they found themselves in front of the camera, these five sports broadcasters agree that their elite athletics experience has been key in their professional success.

First and foremost because many got their first jobs through college-athletics connections. 

After being introduced to the world of journalism by her volleyball teammate, Taylor found her most significant broadcasting mentor in her former Georgia basketball coach Andy Landers. He encouraged her to forgo a pro volleyball career and focus on broadcasting, and today, they work together at ESPN covering women’s college basketball.

Anne Kordes, the volleyball coach at Louisville from 2011 to 2016, connected George with Andrea Stahlman. Stahlman is the news director at WLKY who played club volleyball at KIVA, the club Anne and her father Ron run, and then went on to play at Notre Dame. 

Kordes also introduced George to Billy Stone Jr., who works for CBS in New York and gave George an internship the summer before her junior year.

Sports experience offers connections, but it also lends credibility and respect to a young broadcaster.

“If I walk in somewhere and I’m 6-2, and my shoulders are broad and my hands are bigger than yours, like all the players just want to know, ‘So what did you do? What did you play?’ It’s an instant icebreaker,” Taylor said. “And just like this common ground of understanding, so you’ve been there before so you’ve had a terrible game so you’ve lost a game that you were supposed to win and you now have to go and still talk to media. You had a test and then you had to get on the road and do this match.”

George echoed Taylor. 

“You understand what (the athletes are) going through, you understand the commitment and the dedication and the time that they’re putting in. It gives them a level of respect for you so you’re able to build a raporte.”

Some of the Milwaukee Bucks players went to ACC schools, so George is able to bond with them over shared experiences. She’s even developed a rivalry with Eric Bledsoe, who went to Kentucky.

Instead of “credibility,” Irwin prefers the word “connection.” 

A lot of the athletes she interacts with don’t know her story, but because of her experience in collegiate and professional athletics she says she’s able to ask the right questions and conduct a smart, high-level conversation about what the athlete is experiencing.

When she’s done with an interview, Irwin says athletes will often ask her about her athletic background, and that’s one indication she’s done a good job. 

“They’re like, ‘Oh yeah, that makes sense now,’ ” Irwin said.

There’s also an element of resilience that you cultivate as a high-level athlete, and you need that to succeed in broadcasting. Anderson spent 10 years behind the camera as a producer (including as a part of three Emmy-winning projects with ESPN) before working her first football game as a sideline reporter.

“I remember being sick to my stomach before this particular game, it was a football game at Virginia Tech, and I told my husband that I was going to work it and he made me tell my father,” Anderson said. “I said ‘OK, but I’m not telling anybody else that I’m doing it because I don’t want anybody watching.’ ”

Turns out there were about 78 million households potentially tuned in at the time. 

“I’m sure I was not very good,” Anderson said. But, she continued, “There’s only one way to get good at this job and that is to do the reps.

“I mean were any of us good the first time we did something? Did we all get out there and crush a ball? No. … We’ve all been blocked, and you don’t say to the setter, ‘Don’t set me again.’ You say, ‘Set me again and I will figure out a way around the block.’ ”

With his 10-year professional volleyball career and pair of Olympic appearances, Barnett is certainly one of the most experienced volleyball players working in broadcasting today, so from the beginning he brought a deeper level of insight into the booth than someone who only played at the high school or college level. But today, with more than a decade in the broadcast booth, his knowledge of the game has gotten even more advanced.

“To be quite honest, I wish I could go back and play now with what I know about the game because of broadcasting,” Barnett said. “I was only 30 when I quit, and now I’m 44, I’ve watched an unbelievable amount of volleyball doing broadcasts of collegiate, beach, indoor, international, beach and indoor, so I think it would be even more powerful going the other way if I could go back to playing. It would be so easy. Oh, yeah, that? Yeah, I’ve seen that.”

Kevin Barnett and Paul Sunderland under cover during the 2016 Olympics

From “Ex-Something” to professional broadcaster

Most former athletes enter broadcasting as analysts, also known as color commentators, the subject-matter experts. Getting out of the analyst chair and into the play-by-play role serves as a major achievement on the road to a professional, full-time broadcast career. 

“(Play-by-play announcers) have to get in and out of commercial,” Barnett explained. “You have to welcome people into the broadcast. You have to ask your co-host questions that provide greater value to the listener or to the viewer. You have to get to particular stats, you have to deal with the producer talking in your ear while you are talking a lot more. That’s a professional broadcast position. That’s not an ex-something.”

That distinction is important. After retiring from volleyball, Barnett said when asked what he did, he’d respond, “I used to be a volleyball player.” But finally, after the 2012 Olympics, when he started booking his first non-volleyball broadcasting gigs, he felt comfortable saying, “I’m a broadcaster.”

Barnett has now covered football, basketball, and supercross. 

Irwin spent this past fall splitting her time between football and indoor volleyball. 

After covering everything from horsev racing to college football in Louisville, George is now focusing on basketball. 

And of course Anderson and Taylor have proven themselves capable of tackling pretty much any sport. 

That versatility doesn’t come easily. 

Anderson is known for her preparedness — it’s one of the things she learned during her time as a producer. For that matter, she’s so prepared, no matter the gig, most volleyball people think she only covers volleyball. Same for softball people, soccer people, and basketball people. 

“It’s the greatest compliment that I can receive,” Anderson said, “because it lets me know that I’m invested in each sport and knowledgeable enough in each sport that they trust me with their stories.”

Taylor and George both emphasized the importance of swallowing your pride and asking questions when first embarking on new broadcasting territory or a new sport.

“I am not afraid to be like, I do not know what that means, so I’m going to need someone to tell me what it is, please and thank you,” Taylor said. 

Similarly, George says in her new gig with the Bucks, she’s become very comfortable pulling an assistant coach aside and asking questions, like “What’s this pick-and-pop thing?” “What’s center field?” “What’s late red?”

For Irwin, learning a new sport provides a fresh opportunity for achievement.

“I mentioned to you that I’m a highly competitive person, so when somebody says, ‘Oh, you don’t know football or rugby or soccer,’ I’m like, ‘You want to bet? Give me 24 hours and I bet you I can figure it out.’

“I love the challenge of learning new sports, and not just like the simplified version. I definitely have a coach’s mind and I love like the physiology of athletes and learning the mechanics.”

Extreme travel and bloopers

Of course, broadcasting, like most careers, comes with its own set of challenges. For one, it’s often live and there are plenty of opportunities for embarrassment. 

After spending last summer doing the Amazon Prime broadcasts of the AVP, Irwin has lost track of her blooper tally. 

“I talk for 11 hours on Amazon Prime, so like every hour there’s probably a significant amount of bloopers that would come out,” she said, “but now I just don’t even really see them as bloopers, it just kind of comes out that way.”

George, who was heckled on a live broadcast by her crew for thinking it was “windshield factor” instead of “wind-chill factor,” said you have to have a sense of humor in this business. 

“If you can laugh at yourself I think that also makes you more likable on television, because nobody likes people who take themselves too seriously,” she said.

Irwin’s biggest piece of advice for rookie broadcasters would be simply, be yourself, and to make her point, she used Taylor as an example.

“One of the things that Maria is so good at being is herself. That’s why people love Maria Taylor,” Irwin said. “She’s not trying to be this cookie-cutter broadcaster, this perfect professional. She is exactly who she is in person, and I think that’s fantastic. 

“You look across the board at some of the best broadcasters, not even in volleyball, just across the spectrum, and the ones that you relate to the most are the ones that you can tell are completely and totally themselves.”

Even if things seem out of control.

“I like the high wire act of it. I like when things go wrong. I mean, I don’t want them to, but I see it as a challenge,” Barnett said.

As a mother of three, Anderson enters that chaos of broadcasting with a bit of valuable perspective. 

“You cannot distract me,” Anderson said. “I have spent my life being focused. The more chaotic, the better. The producer is talking in your ear and the game is happening. Well, anybody who has three children knows they have no problem talking to you at the same time, all of them, no matter how many times you tell them. You’ve got one in this ear, and one in that ear and you’re trying to cook dinner, so that’s just my life.”

But even Anderson, who said she had never once had a day when she didn’t want to go to work, admits there are major challenges inherent in this career path. Namely, the travel.

Taylor seconded that: “Trying to stay healthy. Trying to create routine and workout and have a personal life. That’s really difficult.”

George illustrated the extreme travel schedule by joking about the difficulty of packing.

“The packing is the worst,” she said. “Try to pack for 10 days as a girl, trying to get all your outfits together and stay organized and fit it all into like not an embarrassing amount of bags.”

But even with all that, there’s something about this career that has captured the hearts of these former elite athletes that makes it all worth it.

“I like the immediacy of the game,” Anderson said. “You prepare, you go, you have no control over what is going to happen so you need to be flexible.”

“I love my job,” Irwin said. “I can’t wait to seek out other opportunities and new opportunities, but like this is pretty dang cool already.”

“I love my peers, I love my colleagues. I love the sports that I get to cover,” Taylor said, “and I’ll continue to do those as long as people are interested in having me on those broadcasts.”

But it’s this line from Barnett that sums it up best: “Besides playing, it’s the next-best job.”

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